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Book review: The Long Unwinding Road by Marc P.Jones

13 Apr 2024 5 minute read
The Long Unwinding Road: A Journey Through the Heart of Wales by Marc P.Jones is published by Calon.

Mike Parker

Travel writing has changed. As the world heats up, both literally and temperamentally, we need to look closer to home for our adventures, a trend clearly noticeable on bookshop shelves.

Writers are scaling down their ambition, gamely trying to squeeze every last ounce of potential out of what’s right under their noses. Forget Route 66, think more the A66. Or even the A470.

Our main north-south highway has had a fair bit of attention in recent years.

A few songs have been written in its honour, so too a bilingual poetry anthology, and Radio 4 dedicated a mini-series to investigating its strange allure, optimistically tagging it the ‘Welsh M1’ in the process (only really so if the M1 careened like a drunkard and shrunk to a single carriageway every so often).

And now there’s an entire book taking us on a journey along its 186 miles.

It’s more than that though, of course. Around every one of the A470’s soft green bends, there are metaphors lurking, ready to ambush us.

This is far more than mere physical progress from Cardiff to Llandudno, a journey that Google Maps tells us should take 4 hours and 37 minutes.

Author Marc P. Jones is our ideal guide to the road’s many layers, for he is that most prized specimen of Welsh letters, a citizen of the world who has returned to scratch his hiraeth.

He promises to steer us not just along a meandering strip of tarmac, but through his identity, ours too, and our collectively fluctuating understanding of Welshness. Strap in for the ride.


Fortunately, Jones is a fine travelling companion. He is observational and learned, alert to both the grand sweep and the telling detail.

Most crucially, he is curious and respectful, forever getting the best out of the people that he meets and gently interrogates, from an Irish-Polish couple getting engaged in the park bandstand in Pontypridd because “it’s where we first had sex”, to some Llanidloes hippies that, were I in his shoes, I would doubtless have been pretty snippy about.

Instead, Jones is preternaturally kind (“There’s a real sense that these people are in exactly the right place for them at the right time”), and the only piss-taking is out of himself, when he wraps himself in layers of agony trying to barter a price for a home-made necklace that one of them offers for sale.

Thorny issues

There are acute observations too about contemporary Wales, seasoned with the understanding of someone who grew up here but left long ago.

He chews over numerous thorny issues, including “the brutal disdain of the twenty-first century” seen in the high streets of Valleys towns, the rapidly growing Airbnb-isation of everywhere to their north, the almost universal antipathy felt towards Cardiff and the often rocky politics of language and belonging.

Occasionally, his kindness gets the better of him. In Merthyr, “I never read the Brexit vote here as anti-foreigner or anti-immigrant,” but was rather more an echo of “the Uprising [sic] of 1831”, he writes, and I’d love to believe that, but am seriously struggling.

And is Llandrindod Wells really ‘the happiest place in Wales’, as he’s told? That needed sifting.

Spectacular community

He can tip the other way too. In a chapter title, he calls Blaenau Ffestiniog ‘a Town of Disappointment’, having such a miserable time there that he begins to revel in it for the sake of the story, and so misses all that makes it one of our most spectacular and singular communities.

Blaenau would have been the ideal place to explore the growing chasm between real Wales and tourist board Wales, but that’s entirely missed in a Brysonesque wallow in angst-ridden anecdotage.

All in all though, Marc P. Jones succeeds at the challenge of making a drive up the A470 feel like a real road trip.

That he does it all on a friend’s little yellow scooter adds to the sense of enterprise, but really it is his enthusiasm, inquisitiveness and passion that make it a genuine adventure.

We’ve all been up and down that road a thousand times, and to be shown entirely new places along it, as well very familiar places from a whole new angle, is a real achievement.

Space to breathe

From a purely parochial point of view, it was good to see the green middle of Wales getting its fair slice of attention.

The section on Llanbrynmair was deeply thoughtful and eloquent, reflecting his realisation that this was “the first time since leaving Cardiff that I get a sense of the country itself”.

It shows, and he gives the sensation ample space to breathe and be investigated. Mid Wales, he writes, is full of “places that are so much more than places in between”, which had me nodding joyfully.

I warn him though that the purely parochial point of view will be the one that most dictates the response to his book.

Just as everyone, when faced with the enormity of the entire planet on Google Earth, first zooms into their own home, most of us will leaf through The Long Unwinding Road looking for what he has said about us.

I hope he’s ready. At one stage he laconically notes that “a Welshman would drive a hundred miles to get insulted”.

How many more opportunites for umbrage might we find in a full 186 miles? He may be about to find out.

The Long Unwinding Road: A Journey Through the Heart of Wales by Marc P.Jones is published by Calon. It is available from all good bookshops.

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